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Expanding iStockphoto makes high-end video play

Expansion is key to iStockphoto and its parent company, Getty Images. A new Vetta video collection launching today leads the charge, but it's not the only new category on the way.

iStockphoto Chief Operating Officer Kelly Thompson
iStockphoto COO Kelly Thompson iStockphoto

LONDON--iStockphoto, a leader in the market for photos and other stock art, is expanding into premium-quality video under its Vetta brand.

The company announced the move at its weeklong iStockalypse event here, at which contributors take photos to sell, meet with peers, and learn tricks of the trade.

But this is not the only high-end video move under way at iStock. The company also expects to eventually offer high-end "2K" and "4K" video, which has roughly quadruple the resolution of mainstream 1080p video, iStock Chief Operating Officer Kelly Thompson said in an interview.

The video expansion is a significant one for iStock, a pioneering member of the "microstock" industry that has helped disrupt the professional photography business. Microstock companies, which are Internet-based middlemen that let customers license royalty-free images, introduced legions of amateurs eager to make some money if not necessarily a living.

iStock has been working to distinguish itself from rivals such as Shutterstock, Dreamstime, and Fotolia by also offering higher-quality, higher-priced content. To that end, iStock began offering top-shelf photos when it launched its Vetta collection in 2009, edging closer to the core business of its parent company, Getty Images.

Starting today, iStock is making the shift with Vetta video, too.

Although stock photos account for the bulk of iStock's business, video has actually been its fastest-growing category and last year surpassed 10 percent of revenue, Thompson said. The video is used anywhere from in independent films to background imagery on ABC News or "American Idol."

Expansion is important for iStock--and for parent Getty Images, which has suffered through the transformation of the stock-art business even as it embraced the change through its iStock subsidiary. Since going private in 2008, Getty no longer reveals financial details, but Thompson said iStock has "excellent growth considering its maturity."

The subsidiary employs 170 people, with 150 more contractors inspecting content to see whether the contributions are acceptable. And that's a big job. "About 65,000 files per week are uploaded, and we are working on mechanisms that will allow our contributors to upload more," Thompson said. On the customer purchase side, "A file is downloaded every second of the day."

International expansion is also crucial to the company. Getty's $50 million acquisition of iStock in 2006 gave the latter access to the all-important keyword translation technology so those with non-English languages could search for its imagery.

More recently came search results tailored for different countries, which has increased the rate at which searches yield sales, Thompson said. In 2010, revenue outside North America surpassed 50 percent, he said.

iStockphoto logo

Expansion has been tough for the company, though, because of a contributor payment system that the company judged financially unsustainable. A switch last year to a performance-based compensation scheme was painful, but the company thinks it's through the difficulties now.

"It didn't really affect most people," Thompson said. "Everyone sort of settled down."

Video demands
Video can be much more technically demanding than still photography. Photographers can pick the best of a dozen or a hundred photos of the same subject, but video is less forgiving when there are problems with technique, equipment, or interruptions. Editing video also is more complicated and time-consuming, especially given audio integration matters.

What's it take to get your video into Vetta? iStock has a list of Vetta video guidelines: rarity, believable performances, environments with a strong visual impact, thought-provoking ideas, effective storytelling, technical excellence, live action, and imaginative animations or composites.

A Vetta collection will help contributors justify higher-end work, iStock believes.

"Our videographers have been excited about the price point," Thompson said. "They're investing a lot more money into their shoots. They're looking at something where they could get a lot more return back."

A new generation of cameras, led by Canon's 5D Mark II SLR, is transforming digital video. High-end videocameras still are important, but video-capable SLRs have introduced video to photographers who often have an arsenal of lenses and other equipment.

"Some of our photographers make exceptional video," Thompson said. "The Canon 5D Mark II is sort of the perfect camera. We're looking for short bursts of intense greatness, and cameras like that are perfect for those sorts of clips."

Other camera makers are taking it further, though. Red cameras, which are all the rage among feature-film producers, can produce 2K and 4K video--2048x1536 and 4096x3072 pixels, compared with 1920x1080 for 1080p video.

Right now, though, iStock downsamples such video to mere 1080p. But 2K and 4K eventually will arrive, though.

"It's a ways into the future--probably next year at the earliest," Thompson said.

One reason for the caution: 4K video takes up a lot of space--especially because iStock offers video in a variety of resolutions, and each must be stored separately. 4K videos would drastically increase computing needs.

"It boggles the mind what would be required," Thompson said. "We can barely keep up putting new servers into rotation now."

Other expansion under way
Vetta video isn't the only video expansion in the works. iStock recently launched editorial photos, which are for use by the news media and unlike its commercial art don't require models to sign releases permitting usage of their image. Editorial videos will come too, though Thompson wouldn't say when.

And this is not the only Vetta expansion, either. iStock also is launching Vetta for illustrations--imagery created with vector graphics software commonly used for logos and other line art. With Web browsers now supporting the SVG format for vector graphics, expect this category to gain in importance.

Today's illustration category of Vetta is actually a relaunch. iStock tried earlier but had to pull back when it judged it didn't have the right criteria for assessing price and complexity.

And one more new category coming for iStock: the PNG, (portable network graphics) format. Its big advantage compared with JPEG: it supports an "alpha" channel that lets designers mark parts of the overall image as transparent. That means objects work with colored or complex backgrounds without arduous image editing.

A key factor in the decision to support PNG is the fact that Microsoft Office now properly supports it, Thompson said. Because of that, objects with transparent backgrounds can easily be dropped into PowerPoint presentations, for example, he said.

Expansion notwithstanding, iStock has no plans to support raw image formats that offer higher quality than JPEG. Raw photos, the uncompressed, unprocessed data from higher-end digital cameras, offer greater flexibility for editing.

iStock has held many discussions with its customers about the possibility, but they've resoundingly expressed a preference for a finished product, not something they have to work on, Thompson said. "Customers are not interested," he said.

Infrastructure demands
All this expansion--now and in the future--has a big consequence for a data-intensive, international business. Infrastructure is a major matter for iStock.

Right now, the company's archive of content is 1.4 petabytes, growing at a rate of 22 terabytes per month, the company said.

The company today has two data centers in Calgary, Canada, where iStock is headquartered, and relies on Akamai to distribute the data internationally. That works well--until there's an Akamai hiccup from something like a configuration change.

"Man, do our servers start smoking if they have a glitch," Thompson said. "You see the load go [up] whoosh!"

At some point, the company plans to launch new data centers, likely in Europe and Japan, Thompson said.

Through a project called C9, the company is switching from lower-end storage systems to EMC's Atmos technology.

Another IT project at iStock is the move to a new Getty system that's more flexible. Today, each new category requires a new infrastructure, but the new technology will let iStock offer new categories as just a new module.

Given how fast the company is adding new content, that sounds like a good idea.